Drive-Away Dolls Could’ve (& Should’ve) Been Weirder

Courtesy of Focus Features

We’ve all been there. Instead of processing your emotions, you hop in a car with your best friend and hit the road, where nothing but possibility exists. And it will surely fix your broken heart. That is…unless you and your friend have accidentally stolen a shiny metal briefcase that belongs to some very powerful people. That makes for a slightly less relaxing road trip with its own set of detours, each stranger than the last. This is the premise for Ethan Coen’s Drive-Away Dolls. It  marks the first narrative directing project Ethan has helmed without his brother Joel.

Even though Jamie (Margaret Qualley) is going through a break-up (that is the consequence of her own actions), she’s not exactly torn up about it. Instead, she sees the sudden freedom as an excuse to drive from Philadelphia to Tallahassee with her far more reserved friend, Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan). The trip to Tallahassee is an opportunity for Marian to visit her aunt and indulge in slow-paced activities like bird-watching. Jamie has other plans. She sees the  road trip as a way to get her friend laid, with a bonus of visiting some roadside oddities. The two sign up for a drive-away: they agree to deliver a car from one location to another. In this case, the car is also going to Tallahassee, but they accidentally take a car that a group of criminals is trying to pass on to their associates (Colman Domingo, Joey Slotnick, & C. J. Wilson). Jamie and Marian are now unsuspecting targets as they tour the best lesbian bars America has to offer.

Jamie and Marian look in the trunk of their car
Courtesy of Focus Features

The idea for Drive-Away Dolls came about in the early 2000s. The original title was Drive-Away Dykes, which the film alludes to in the final credits. Despite having been an idea germinating for twenty-odd years, there’s a general feeling of loose ends that permeates the film. At a slim 78 minutes, Drive-Away Dolls meanders and drags. There’s a clear tone reminiscent of exploitation flicks of the ’70s, a pulpy, sensational story meant to revel in its oddity. The problem is that the film is not nearly as strange as it should be. The beauty of America and the open road are its strangeness. The people they come across, the bizarre, full-size replica of Stonehenge made out of foam, and the freedom to be forgotten. In 1999, when Drive-Away Dolls takes place, it was so easy to come and go without leaving a trail of any kind. You could meet someone in a town along the highway, spend the night with them, and from then on they would exist only in your memory.

A road movie thrives in the traveling. It’s the purest example of the old adage about the journey being the destination. Drive-Away Dolls only has two detours, and they don’t create an exciting pause in the journey. These detours, and the road trip itself, are supposed to expose the characters’ strengths and weaknesses. To put them in funny, awkward, exciting circumstances that couldn’t have happened in their hometown. Jamie and Marian are supposed to be the best of friends, but many of their conversations feel like they barely know each other. On paper, their diametrically opposed personalities should work to create interesting conflict. The free-spirited vs. the goody two-shoes. The way they interact in social situations makes it seem like the duo hasn’t spent any real time together. There’s no chemistry between them, whether it be platonic or romantic, which makes it difficult to fully relax and go along for the ride.

Sukie, Jamie, and Marian stand outside of a gay bar
Courtesy of Focus Features

The dialogue is exactly what’s expected from a Coen production (even if it’s one brother short) in the sense that it’s as snappy as ever. What’s missing is the wit that makes the lively back-and-forth intoxicating. It’s a signature quality of most of the works of the Coen Brothers that is distinctly missing here. Drive-Away Dolls should have leaned fully into hijinks and absurdity. The film feels oddly restrained as it aimlessly wanders. Every time Marian goes to sleep, she dreams of her neighbor tanning in the nude. It’s a curious memory for us as an audience to return to. There’s no question that Marian is gay, so it’s not a memory she’s using to process her sexuality. Maybe it only exists to show that Marian was in awe of someone who felt so free in their body, but that’s already very clear in her character. There are also far too many psychedelic interludes for a weak reason that is revealed when the mysterious metallic case is opened. Even the central mystery of the case lacks a strong narrative that compels the viewer to follow Jamie and Marian as they make their way to Tallahassee.

Drive-Away Dolls feels like it’s borrowing concepts and plot points from other films, but never quite molding itself into something that stands on its own. The silver briefcase will immediately conjure Pulp Fiction; the image of two young women traveling across the country is reminiscent of Thelma & Louise; and had Jamie been born a few years later, she would’ve fit right in with the lesbians of Bottoms. There’s something weird and wonderful within Drive-Away Dolls, but it’s buried under an aimless journey without a decent map to follow.

Written by Tina Kakadelis

News Editor for Film Obsessive. Movie and pop culture writer. Seen a lot of movies, got a lot of opinions. Let's get Carey Mulligan her Oscar.

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